With a crowded AFC playoff field that has five 7-6 teams vying for the final two wild-card spots, one game on Sunday sticks out: Cincinnati at Denver.
If the season ended today — and for better or for worse, we're getting more season rather than less in 2021 — both teams would miss the playoffs due to tiebreakers.
Sunday's game at Empower Field at Mile High may not be a loser-goes-home matchup since there are four games left, but it will be a serious measuring stick to see if either team deserves to make the playoffs after finishing with one of the 10 worst records last season. And the loser may have to win out to stay in the hunt.
Denver has had a roller-coaster campaign with three straight wins, four straight losses, and then alternating Ws and Ls since November. Cincinnati, meanwhile, has lost four of its last six since getting off to a 5-2 start.
Both teams still have to leapfrog Cleveland, Buffalo, and possibly Indianapolis, but it all starts with winning on what looks like a beautiful December day in Denver.
Cincinnati (7-6) at Denver (7-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 19 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Broncos -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Joe Burrow will show up?
The former No. 1 overall pick has put up impressive raw numbers this season with 3,483 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, both of which rank eighth in the NFL, to go along with a 68.8 percent completion rate (fourth). But one other number really sticks out: his league-leading 14 interceptions and 41 sacks.
Of concern is that Burrow's play has really dropped off as the season has gone along.
Through the first eight games, Burrow was passing for 276.9 yards per game with 20 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He did take 2.5 sacks, but that was manageable considering his offensive line. But in his last five games, Burrow only is averaging 253.6 yards per game with five touchdowns, five interceptions, and 21 sacks.
The Bengals are 0-4 this season when he throws multiple interceptions and 5-2 when he throws at least two more TDs than INTs. Cincy also is 2-6 when he takes three or more sacks. It's a simple formula: The Bengals win when their star quarterback plays well.
Denver has had a solid pass defense most of the season, ranking 10th at 218.6 yards allowed per game. But it has been especially strong lately, holding three of its last four opponents — including Patrick Mahomes' Chiefs — under 200 passing yards.
The Broncos may be only tied for 13th with 12 interceptions and tied for 15th with 30 sacks, but this defense is strong enough to cause problems for Burrow, especially with Bengals right tackle Riley Reiff (ankle) landing on IR.
2. What happened to Courtland Sutton?
When Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 1, one of the main beneficiaries was Sutton. From Weeks 2-7, he averaged 6.2 receptions for 87.5 yards per game, albeit with only two total touchdowns.
But since Jeudy returned, Sutton has not picked up more than two receptions in any game, nor has he topped 40 yards or scores.
The Broncos clearly believe in Sutton since they gave him a four-year, $68 million extension with $34.9 million guaranteed in late November. And Sunday may be a chance for him to shine once again.
The Bengals have struggled against the pass this season, ranking 29th at 256.8 yards allowed per game. And they’re looking rather thin in the secondary after No. 1 corner Chidobe Awuzie landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list while also dealing with a foot injury.
Cincinnati may be able to get free-agent addition Trae Waynes back, but it's not clear if the veteran corner will be ready to return after missing 11 games due to a hamstring injury. Vernon Hargreaves III also left last week's game with an aggravated foot injury and has yet to practice.
Jeudy may still be the leading receiver in Denver when healthy, but Sunday is setting up to potentially be a big game for Sutton. And the Broncos will need him to step up if they are going to make a playoff run.
3. Which team is more effective on the ground?
Since coming off of their respective byes, both teams have been running like crazy. Denver has picked up 162 yards per game (55.8 more than its season average), while Cincinnati is averaging 134.8 yards (41.7 more than its season average). Both teams will face defenses that haven’t been tested much on the ground.
Teams have barely run on Cincinnati (third-fewest attempts, fourth-fewest yards), but the Bengals do rank 12th at 4.1 yards allowed per carry and fifth in adjusted line yards (3.68). Similarly, the Broncos have seen the eighth-fewest attempts and allowed the 10th-fewest yards per game, but they grade out poorly in advanced stats. Not only are they 22nd in yards allowed per attempt (4.4), the Broncos are also 25th in adjusted line yards (4.59).
Although Melvin Gordon III returned last week and racked up 111 yards on 24 carries against the Lions, Denver would do well to involve Javonte Williams more in the ground game. He's been more effective on a per-carry basis (4.8 vs. 4.5 ypc) and is a better receiver.
The Bengals don’t have a second talented back who will usurp Joe Mixon, but they may want to lighten his load soon. The fifth-year back has a league-leading 245 carries so far, putting him on pace for 320 with the extra game this season. Mixon has only picked up 112 yards on 37 carries over the last two weeks, both losses, so more Samaje Perine may be on the horizon.
These are two evenly-matched teams, not only by their records but by their point differentials (47 for Denver, 61 for Cincinnati). However, between home-field advantage, the Bengals' latest injuries, and both teams' recent play, the Broncos get the tiniest of edges to keep their playoff hopes alive. This one really could go either way.